There’s something to be said for not handing out lifetime achievement awards on an annual basis: when someone gets one, it’s because a voting body genuinely thinks an artist’s career merits the effort that goes such a tribute, and not just because they have a space to fill and that person’s number has come up.
The Directors’ Guild of America has been particularly stingy with their own top honor of late: the last recipient was Norman Jewison in 2010, and that came four years after the previous presentation, to Clint Eastwood. This year, the DGA has decided it’s in a generous mood again, and the beneficiary is a worthy one: 80-year-old Czech-born master Milos Forman.
Forman is, of course, already a two-time DGA winner, for the same films that netted him his pair of Oscars: “One Few Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” (1975) and “Amadeus” (1984). Those remain his only films to have been recognized by the Guild, though he received a third nod from the Academy (and a third Golden Globe win) in the 1996 race for “The People Vs. Larry Flynt.” He’s one of only a dozen filmmakers to have won the DGA Award twice, and now the ninth member of that select group to receive the Guild’s Lifetime Achievement Award. (The remaining three — Oliver Stone, Ang Lee and Ron Howard — can afford to wait.)
Anyway, enough with the stats: Forman’s movies make their own case for this honor. Not the most prolific of talents — in almost half a century, he’s made only a dozen theatrical features — he has nonetheless established himself as one of modern cinema’s wittiest, most fastidious humanists over a boutique-sized but eclectic filmography. His two Best Picture winners hold up well, with “Cuckoo’s Nest” earning extra distinction for having beaten arguably the most impressive lineup in Academy history. In my opinion, they’re not even his best films, but the tonal contrast between them — “Cuckoo’s Nest” all loping candor, “Amadeus” all porcelain irony — is as useful an indication as any of the reach and range of Forman’s filmmaking.
Those who haven’t explored his work far beyond those films — or the still-scorching bio-satire “Larry Flynt” — would do well to seek out the two Czech New Wave features, “Loves of a Blonde” and “The Firemen’s Ball” that made his name before he crossed over to the States. Both nominated for the foreign-language Oscar in the late 1960s. Both wry, sad examinations of community politics and personal discoveries and small-town Czechoslovakia — the latter film particularly pointed in its satirical jabs at Eastern European Communism — they remain remarkably bracing and precise.
His delicate touch remained intact abroad from 1971’s lovely “Taking Off” onwards, but I’d wager he never quite outdid that one-two breakthrough. (Or maybe that’s just my Czech blood talking.) Though he shot a filmed-theater piece for Czech television three years ago, he hasn’t completed a feature since 2006’s lesser effort “Goya’s Ghosts.” Coincidentally or otherwise, his last three films form a rough trilogy of ambitious reworkings of the biopic template, with “Flynt” and “Ghosts” sandwiching the 1999 Jim Carrey/Andy Kaufman film “Man on the Moon.” There was talk last year of him furthering that investigation with a biopic of influential fraudster Charles Ponzi; I don’t know where that project’s at right now, but here’s hoping he gets round to it.
Announcing the Lifetime Achievement Award today, DGA president Taylor Hackford stated “It is a tremendous privilege to present the DGA Lifetime Achievement Award for feature film to one of the greatest filmmakers of our time, Milos Forman. No matter what subject or genre he tackles, Milos finds the universality of the human experience in every story, allowing us – his rapt audience – to recognize ourselves within the struggle for free expression and self-determination that Milos so aptly portrays on the silver screen.”
The formidable list of previous Lifetime Achievement Award recipients, meanwhile, reads like this: Woody Allen, Robert Altman, Ingmar Bergman, Frank Borzage, Frank Capra, Francis Ford Coppola, George Cukor, Cecil B. DeMille, Clint Eastwood, John Ford, Alfred Hitchcock, John Huston, James Ivory, Norman Jewison, Elia Kazan, Henry King, Stanley Kubrick, Akira Kurosawa, David Lean, Sidney Lumet, Rouben Mamoulian, Joseph L. Mankiewicz, Mike Nichols, Martin Scorsese, Steven Spielberg, George Stevens, King Vidor, Orson Welles, William A. Wellman, Billy Wilder, Robert Wise, William Wyler and Fred Zinnemann.
Forman’s award will be presented at the DGA Awards dinner on February 2.